The mysterious Luzon jars
Arturo Luz recalled his introduction to classical Japanese theater half a century ago during a trip to Tokyo with the painter Fernando Zobel; they spent the better half of an evening watching the slow, studied movements of an actor who took almost an hour just to get on stage. Luz described the experience thus: “Fernando was mesmerized, while I was paralyzed.” Such candor can only come from a senior citizen who also happens to be one of our National Artists for the Visual Arts. Ordinary folk like you and me need to be primed for classic Japanese art forms to experience either an epiphany or the best nap in your life.
I was introduced to the Japanese tea ceremony in my childhood, having a Japanophile of an uncle who built an authentic tea house in his backyard. I was nine when I first visited Japan and learned to sit patiently through the tea ceremony, knowing I would be rewarded with a sweet after the adults had consumed the thick, bitter, green tea.
With this background I was delighted to host the Manila visit of Dr. Sen Genshitsu, the 15th grand tea master of the Urasenke School of Tea, whose roots go way back to a tea master named Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). While watching Dr. Sen prepare the water, mix the tea with an elegant bamboo whisk, and serve this in beautiful bowls, I noted the way he turned the bowls and wiped them with a small handkerchief. After the ceremony I said his graceful movements resembled the manner a Catholic priest would pour, drink and purify a chalice of consecrated wine at Mass. Naturally, the people around Dr. Sen looked at me with some alarm: How can the chanoyu or ancient art of tea be influenced by a Roman Catholic ritual?
Unfazed, Dr. Sen smiled and said that many of the 16th-century tea masters were Christians—one of them, Lord Takayama Ukon (born 1552), whose Christian name was Iustus, was actually exiled to Manila where he died in 1615. I then remembered the neglected monument in Plaza Dilao in front of the old Paco train station that was the site of a Japanese community during the Spanish period. That was the first of two Philippine connections we have with the Japanese tea ceremony.
I then inquired if Dr. Sen knew about the so-called “Luzon jars” or ruson no tsubo that were highly prized by tea masters in the 16th century. Again he smiled and said he had two ancient Luzon jars in his home in Kyoto.
The standard reference for these Luzon jars comes from Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de la Islas Filipinas” (Events of the Philippine Islands), first published in Mexico in 1609. In the eighth chapter, which is a description of the Philippines and the Filipinos of the time, Morga wrote:
“In this island of Luzon, especially in the provinces of Manila, Pampanga, Pangasinan and Ylocos the natives have ancient earthenware jars [tibores] which are brown in color and not especially attractive to look at. Some of these are medium-sized, others smaller, and they have certain marks and stamps on them but no one knows how to explain these, nor knows whence they came nor when, for they are no longer imported or made here. The Japanese seek them and think highly of them, for they have discovered that the root of a certain plant called cha [tea], which the kings and lords of Japan drink hot, both as a refreshment and medicine, can best be kept and preserved in these jars. Hence throughout Japan these jars are regarded highly as being the most precious jewels of their inner rooms and chambers, and the Japanese adorn them on the outside with fine, elegantly wrought gold and keep them in brocade cases. One of them is worth a great sum there, for some jars are valued at, and sold for, two thousand taels at the rate of eleven reales per tael. It makes no difference whether they be cracked or chipped, for that does not prevent them from holding cha. The natives of these islands sell them to the Japanese for the best possible price and they are diligent in seeking them out for the sake of the profit to be made. However, few are to be found these days because of the zeal with which they have been sought up to the present.”
Aside from Morga there was a Florentine named Francesco Carletti who visited the Philippines in 1596-1597 and narrated his experience with Japanese customs in Nagasaki. The customs officers searched everyone for these Luzon jars, “which, by the laws of Japan, everyone is obliged under pain of death to declare because the Emperor of Japan wishes to buy them all for himself… These vessels are often valued at five, six, and even ten thousand escudos each, while we would not pay more than one giulic for one of them, because they have the property of preserving from decay …the leaves of a plant called ‘cia [cha].’
“The vases made with that clay are scarce, but those people recognize them well, as soon as they see certain marks and characters written in old letters which prove that they are very old… It is well-known that the Emperor of Japan and all the other princes of the land possess an innumerable number of them which they treasure particularly and value more than any other precious thing. They compete among themselves both for vanity and for megalomania in possessing the largest number for they take great pleasure in showing them to each other.”
These Chinese jars of the Song Period sourced from the Philippines were called Luzon jars. They were not made in the Philippines yet provide tangible proof of our long relationship with Japan.
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